Thursday, October 8, 2015

Revealed Character

In the early 1970's a sports commentator for CBS sports made the statement that has been attributed to others over the decades and used to remind us of an important truth. A friend gave our son a plague with the saying on it several years ago when he made a significant switch in sporting games. The saying is most likely one you have heard before and one that bears repeating. "Sports don't build character; they reveal it." With all that we read in the news, see on the screen, and experience in our lives, the quote burns within the hearts of many who might not have been able to express it but who most certainly know it is true.

Almost everybody has "their team," and almost everybody has "their sport." As a Mississippi State Bulldog fan, the sport that is easiest to talk about is college baseball. It's easy to be a fan of the bulldogs during baseball season. Last year it was easy to be a bulldog fan during football season, and the verdict is still out on how easy it will be this year. The irony of using "easy" and "fan" together is that being a true fan is being a fan when being one is not easy. Anyone can be a fan when things are going well. Loyalty surfaces when things aren't going well. Why? Because sports reveal character.

Our small town is like most small towns. We don't have much going on except football. Winning the state championship last year makes the anticipation of Friday nights build incredibly as the lights go off after one game, the stats are reported, and the week begins again. It's almost as if we live from Friday to Friday. Allow me a few moments to express some silly frustration. It really is silly. I'm just too much of a Mississippi State loyalist not to mention it. It's hard sometimes to go to games on Friday night. It didn't used to be, but this year something has happened. It started toward the end of last football season, and the strangeness has expanded into this year. 

First, an important note for later rantings is that the saying that accompanies our team is "Roll Tide". We are the Peabody Golden Tide. Now for you SEC fans, you can already begin to see where this is going. In addition to the Alabama influence, most of the people in Trenton are Tennessee Volunteers. Rocky Top is the song of choice, and orange is the color of the day. You might think that the influence of Tennessee would make it's way over into Peabody, but don't be fooled. Fortunately (no offense to my Tennessee friends - really) we are not subjected to singing Rocky Top at every game. So far. We do have another situation that concerns me deeply as a true Mississippi State Bulldog. Fans have begun to bring cowbells to the game to cheer the team on. Hold on just a minute before you get any idea that Peabody fans are beginning to see the light. Not so, Mary Lou. Instead, all around the stadium on any given Friday you can hear fans ringing cowbells and yelling, "Roll Tide." To top it all off, many of those same fans are actually fans of what all Mississippi State loyalists call "the school up North." So you have Ole Miss fans ringing a cowbell shouting Roll Tide. Do you feel my pain yet? I am considering a takeover of the announcer's microphone to get us going with some "hold on, wait a minute, gotta put some dawg in it ....." The only problem (despite a recent t-shirt to the contrary) is that our biggest rival happens to be - the Milan Bulldogs. (Actually that is not the only problem. We should also consider that the microphone is far away from me in the press box, and that the announcer is a Presbyterian minister who has a distinct size advantage over me and would be very willing to switch from sprinkling to dunking me in a pool of water for an extended time if I tried any movement that resembled a takeover in favor of MSU messaging. Kidding of course. Fortunately, Paul and I are friends, even though he says, "Roll Tide," with an enthusiasm that concerns me at times. Again - :).

Take a moment and close your eyes. Imagine the travesty of what you are about to read. Wait - are you sitting down? We even have a team we play who because of their school name uses the Mississippi State "M" symbol, calls themselves the Rebels, and plays Rocky Top as their fight song. Oh Lord, who can deliver me from this wretched condition ...... I digress. 

Finding oneself in such a precarious situation every Friday night can present a case study in situational ethics. Suppose .... "Is it ever justified for an Ole Miss Rebel (or black bear or whatever name they are calling themselves now) to ring a cowbell?" Or, "is it ever justified for a MSU bulldog to yell Roll Tide?" Are we breaking some kind of SEC code that brands us as dissenters when we enter the stadium of our alma mater fully clad in the appropriate gear? Remember, sports don't build character; they reveal it.

Whew. Okay the confession is over, and I feel like perhaps I have been purged of any obligation to stop by the Chapel of Memories at MSU before entering the stadium in a few weeks for homecoming. I have a feeling that the sportscaster who made the now famous quote was not at all talking about anything we have just experienced together. Instead, I wonder if he might have been thinking about other ways that sports reveal character.

Our town is one of the towns that has decided it's better to be safe than sorry when it comes to praying at the ballgames. We have a moment of silence. I have to admit that during the moment of silence I spend time praying that somehow during the next four quarters God will be glorified (and that if anyone decides to rush the holder - which is highly unlikely - that said holder, aka my son, will be mysteriously lifted into the air by a legion of heavenly beings. Of course, since God did not choose to do so for His own Son as He was facing crucifixion, I won't get my hopes up. By the way, Daniel has made it known that he would prefer us not to scale the fence and come onto the field for any reason). 

To be fair to all involved, we have managed to all stand and unify around the singing of God Bless America just before the fourth quarter. Not to be a pessimist, but it does seem strange that we are praying through song for God to bless America but we can't pray with words for Him to change our community and our school. Oops. Another digression. Another blog on consistency might be in order. I am grateful for the fourth quarter acknowledgement. Truly grateful. I would rather have a moment of silence than be led in prayer by someone who is praying to some false god for sure.

So, on to the idea of God being glorified in sports and sports not building character but revealing it. Over the years, I have been blessed to see coaches and players navigate the cheering crowds, the bad calls, and the fair weathered fans with dignity in high school, college, and professional football. Tim Tebow created problems for many Christ followers who recognize that a gator and a snake are closely related in the animal kingdom. Never forget it was a snake that Satan used to trick Eve - a snake whose curse was to crawl on its belly. Could it be that at one time the snake did not crawl on its belly but on legs almost like - wait for it - a Gator? Just a little theological exercise to get your mind thinking for the day. How do you explain Tim Tebow's Gator connection? Praise God for young men with a heart for missions, I suppose. Imagine the struggles he must have had during his college years. I'm kidding!! Calm down, my sweet Florida friends. The bottom line is that he loves Jesus with his whole heart and teaches us all that it is possible to play the game in a way for God to receive the glory.

 An interesting connection arises between how much glory God receives off the field and how much he receives on the field. We see lots of players on television making touchdowns and amazing plays followed by some symbol to give glory to God. Maybe it's a fist bump toward the air, a finger (index finger that is) pointing up, or a kneel in the end zone. I have not watched every game or seen every time a player gives glory to God, but the times I have seen it have always been after a success. Why is it only after a success? What would the reaction be if after an especially rough tackle, the focus of the attack arose from the bottom of a mountainous pileup filled with hot, smelly players three quarters into a game in the middle of September in the heat of West Tennessee with a symbol that gave praise and honor to God as the One who gives and the One who takes away? Doesn't scripture tell us that "God causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him?" (Romans 8:28) Shouldn't God be glorified when things don't go well? What about when we are crushed, torn down, tackled, intercepted, or beaten (slight paraphrase of 2 Cor. 4:8-11)? Why does God get the glory for the touchdown or the completed pass, yet when things don't go right we tend to look to and even become more like the world? We see it on Friday nights, and we see it in our lives every day. Where in the Bible do we see the exception that allows us to throw away integrity, honesty, and character when it comes to football? I would take time to search for it since many Christ followers seem to live by that principle, but I know it's not there so I won't waste my time. 

Let me jump in real quick before the heckling starts to say that in no way am I saying that there are not areas of inconsistency in my own life. I pray Psalm 139:23-24 regularly, and I am sure there are avid football fans who do the same. The baffling part is not those who are on a journey. Instead, the part that causes so many to stumble is that many Christ followers actually pause the journey during the season, hoping that somehow God is too busy watching the cheerleaders to notice our bad behavior. 

Sidebar:  Let me assure you that watching the cheerleaders is not how I picture God, especially considering the ever shortening of what many call uniforms. I actually heard a cheer the other day that called on the players to "stomp and shake it; stomp, stomp, and shake it ...." What? Seriously? Excuse me, but I'm not excited about seeing some young man in shoulder pads and tight pants "stomp and shake it." The truth of the matter is that I am also not interested in seeing young ladies - teenage girls - "stomp and shake it ..." What ever happened to "Two bits, four bits, six bits a dollar ..." (I guess Common Core is affecting more than our academics.) Oh, for more space and time. Pray for us fathers who have daughters who have chosen the cheerleading route. Patience, Lord, patience.

Back to the purpose at hand. Perhaps the only time a Pastor gets a break from the morning coffee shop gossip is during football season when those same Christians are having fried quarterback extra crispy with their eggs, toast, and coffee. We want to have young men who are hardworking and honest in our communities so that one day they will lead us, raise strong families, and make our society stronger. We want them to follow rules, stay out of trouble, avoid drugs, sex, and alcohol. We want them to walk tall, be respectful, and have a strong work ethic. And we want them to win football games. Some will say that this next sentence comes from my not being a football player myself, but I pray that it comes from the heart of a father who wants his children and their friends to grow up to be Godly men and women who make a Kingdom difference in our world. I remember one pastor friend saying, "I'm not growing ball players. I'm growing missionaries." Wise words. Here is my burning question. Why do we have to choose? Why can't we praise young men (and women) who are all of the things we want them to be even if the game doesn't go our way? Have we really come to the point we choose winning a game over victory in Christ? When did we decide (even those of us who are every Sunday rear in the pew kinds of people) that sometimes you have to compromise to be a winner? Oh that we had the same passion for seeing the lost come to Christ that we do for seeing the ball make it across the goal line. 

Football is such a large part of our society that we should not be surprised that the game and everything surrounding the game is a spiritual battlefield. Our spiritual enemy wants to steal, kill, and destroy everything that could bring glory to God. As such, he uses people in the spotlight to cast doubt on the character of God. For the next several weeks, I am praying for a young man who has a chance to show his peers that even in the midst of unjust circumstances, God is still God. He is forever on His throne. Do you remember when Joseph's brothers got tired of him and cast him aside, selling him into slavery? That story seems to come back to me more often lately than ever before. Eventually, God exalted Joseph to a high place, and Joseph had to deal with his feelings toward his brothers who had treated him so unjustly. He told them that he forgave them because what they meant for evil, God meant for good. Jesus did not just glorify God when things were going well. Even on the cross, He pointed us to the Father. Paul reminds us that our suffering is for a little while until we attain the fullness of God's work in us (Romans 8:18). 

Servanthood is certainly evident when successful people do good deeds. Servanthood is best seen, however, when we take the injustice the world throws our way, lay it at the feet of Jesus, and look for ways to use our experience for His glory. Pray with me for a young man in whom I have seen Jesus for the last couple of years. You can look into his eyes and see that he loves the Lord and that he is doing all that he knows to do to be the young man Christ has called him to be. This young man and his family are friends of ours, and perhaps I take injustice toward him too personally. I have strong convictions about what God has in store for this young man. Sometimes situations happen, and since no one really knows the private story, the world does not see or know the injustice. In those moments, the one who is hurt could become bitter and angry because the injustice is real. He is expected to take the high road and to pass off certain events as just part of the way the game is played. Pray for this young man and for others like him in your own communities who are seeking the Lord and trying to live the honorable life. Satan will attack them with great intensity by trying to destroy their confidence in who they are in Christ and by trying to tear down the trust they place in others. Consider the abuse Tim Tebow has taken for standing up for his faith and remember that the same type of attack happens daily to Christian students of all ages. 

Pray for those students who are coming alongside the other to encourage him and lift him up. Rest assured that the roles either have been or one day will be reversed. We all need a cheerleader sometimes (not one wearing a pillowcase, but more of a proverbial cheerleader who will hold us accountable and come alongside us in the journey). Some scripture that I am trying to remember these days come to mind:

"Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another." Proverbs 27:17

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy." Matthew 5:7

"Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will  he also reap." Galatians 6:7

The truth is that adversity is part of life, and recent experiences have reminded me of that sign a friend gave my son a few years ago. It still hangs in his room today.

Today perhaps your meditation and your prayer for those who are in difficult situations can be "that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead" Philippians 4:11, ESV. 

Maybe you are the one going through a time of injustice. As I wrote that sentence I spent time praying for you that you might have someone come alongside you and that you might know that the Spirit of God is always with you to comfort you and to see you through. Perhaps your prayer could be, "I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the LORD sustained me. I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around. Arise, O LORD! Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked" Psalm 3:6 and 7, ESV.

Maybe you are the one providing the support. Stay with the task. The roles could reverse any day, and in these moments you are helping your friend see Jesus. "A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity" Proverbs 17:17, ESV.

Maybe you have thought about certain situations in your life and realize that you may be the one who has mixed up your priorities and as a result have caused grief for someone else. There is no time like the present to make things right. "So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift" Matthew 5:24, ESV. 

Let's close with this passage for today: "Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above very name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" Philippians 2:5-11. ESV.

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